Baltimore vs. San Francisco
Sunday, Feb. 3, 6:30 p.m. ET, at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans – TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Sims
*Keys to the game: Both defenses spent the bulk of Super Bowl week touting the importance of stopping the run, although it means starkly different things for each team. For the Ravens, it means their edge rushers being disciplined and not getting sucked inside so 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick can make the quick read and bust containment to the outside. Atlanta was successful in doing just that. The Catch-22 being that makes it more challenging to crash down on RB Frank Gore when he keeps the ball on the read-option and stresses ILBs Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe to fill the proper gaps quickly. Baltimore needs to create long passing downs and count on the streaky accuracy of Kaepernick’s powerful arm to generate a few turnover opportunities. The Ravens have a pick-your-poison option in deciding whether to roll coverage to WR Michael Crabtree and leave TE Vernon Davis to roam the underneath routes as he did so effectively against the Falcons. 49ers defensive end Justin Smith said he expects the Ravens to run heavily on first and second down, using the counter play to set up the vertical passing game off play-action. If the 49ers can contain RBs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce on early downs and set up third-and-eight-plus, San Francisco Ss Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner won’t get sucked toward the line of scrimmage, opening the deep passes on which QB Joe Flacco excels.
*Matchup to watch – Ravens LG Kelechi Osemele vs. 49ers DL Justin Smith: Aldon Smith hasn’t had a sack in five games, and much of the drought can be attributed to the triceps injury Justin Smith suffered in Week 15. He has gutted it out through the first two playoff games, but admits it’s a 50 percent tear that will require surgery. Several of Aldon Smith’s sacks this season have come when looping around Justin Smith – a master of the subtle art of holding offensive linemen. The rookie Osemele was moved from right tackle to left guard at the start of the postseason and has held up well.
*Player spotlight – Ravens MLB Ray Lewis: Who else? The 17-year veteran is one game away from completing the fairytale ending of riding off into the sunset with a Lombardi Trophy in hand. He’s not as fast as he once was, but Lewis’ legs have looked fresh since his return from injury and he won’t be fooled by anything the 49ers throw at him.
*Fast facts: The 49ers have won all five of their Super Bowl appearances. … The Ravens (.650, 13-7) have the highest postseason winning percentage of any team.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
When the 49ers run the ball: The 49ers finished the regular season ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing, a number that didn’t fully account for the scheme change since Colin Kaepernick has taken over at quarterback. In two playoff games San Francisco has racked up a staggering 472 rushing yards on 6.55 yards per carry. Kaepernick rushed for an NFL record by a quarterback — in any game — with 181 yards against Green Bay. Atlanta largely took the big play away, but still got hammered for 149 yards on the ground, most coming between the tackles. The 49ers’ diversity and athleticism will severely tax the Ravens, whose age up the middle can be a detriment. Edge: 49ers
When the 49ers pass the ball: Kaepernick is a former baseball pitcher who sported a mid-90s fastball. There’s no doubt he can sling it to any spot on the field. However, the Ravens will take their chances if they can back the 49ers into dangerous down and distances and attempt to take advantage of Kaepernick’s propensity to overshoot receivers. Of course, that won’t matter much if wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis are keeping the Ravens off-balance and exploiting mismatches in man coverage downfield. Most of Kaepernick’s misses tend to be high — which could bring Ravens free safety Ed Reed into a very prominent role. Edge: 49ers
When the Ravens run the ball: The Ravens struggled to move New England off the line of scrimmage in the AFC Championship Game, and all but abandoned their first-half strategy of running heavily on first and second down. Expect Baltimore to test the run defense early but not to be stubborn with it. San Francisco largely shut down Atlanta’s ground game, only to have the secondary repeatedly torched. If the 49ers are effectively shutting down Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce in the first few possessions, they could be marginalized before halftime. Edge: Even
When the Ravens pass the ball: Baltimore shifted three spots along the offensive line entering the postseason, and the result has been far improved protection for quarterback Joe Flacco, who hasn’t thrown an interception through three playoff games. If 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith is again playing with virtually one arm due to a triceps injury and Aldon Smith isn’t able to rattle Flacco in the backfield, San Francisco’s secondary suffered multiple major breakdowns against the Falcons in allowing 396 passing yards. Torrey Smith’s speed will test Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown, and tight end Dennis Pitta has shown the ability to produce big plays when coverage is rolled outside. Edge: Ravens
Special teams: No kicker in the NFL missed more field-goal attempts this season than the 49ers’ David Akers, and his confidence is clearly lacking. San Francisco does have an outstanding punter in Andy Lee, who can flip field position, and a solid return game that certainly has watched plenty of tape of Baltimore’s breakdowns on the coverage units at Denver in the divisional playoffs. Ravens kicker Justin Tucker might be a rookie, but he has three game-winning kicks – and showed nerves of steel in knocking home the game-winning in double overtime in Denver. Edge: Ravens
Coaching: The coaching matchup has been the biggest story in New Orleans all week, capped by a co-press conference for the Ravens’ John Harbaugh and the 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh on Friday. Both preach hard-nosed, discipline football. Their teams aren’t likely to beat themselves with penalties or mental breakdowns. The coaches are cut from the same cloth, a big reason their teams reached Super Bowl XLVII. Edge: Even
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
One element continues to stick out in what is a compelling Super Bowl matchup. How are the Ravens going to stop the 49ers’ ground game? QB Colin Kaepernick is young, fleet of foot and demands run-contain discipline from the front seven. Atlanta discovered that opens the barn door for Frank Gore, and Baltimore’s age at certain key defensive spots will prove an Achilles heel.